Oysters vs. the State

The fight to save a California oyster farm from the National Park Service


The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, by Summer Brennan, Counterpoint, 256 pages, $16.95

Oysters aren't just tasty; they're useful. One oyster can filter about 50 gallons of water a day. They eat the stuff that fouls the drink: algae, runoff from farms, the detritus of city life. In exchange, they emit very little waste. How the creatures eat our pollution yet taste so good is a question best not to ponder.

Some wild fisheries are propped up with public funds—in Maryland, for example, watermen often harvest oysters that were planted with state assistance. In private aquaculture operations, by contrast, oyster farmers plant their own crops, market their own products, and work their own leases. While some of them qualify for subsidies, the industry generally does not receive government help. Their operations benefit the environment and make money in the process.

That a force for clean water, biodiversity, and economic gain could become so controversial is surprising, but oyster farms are not welcome everywhere. Sometimes, neighbors fight the farms because they don't want oyster floats and workers obstructing their multi-million-dollar views. Sometimes, watermen who harvest from the public fishery don't want the farms encroaching on the bottom they work. And in the case of Drakes Estero, the desire to make something wild again goes up against the need to grow food for human beings.

Previous battles in the oyster wars were fought over the Potomac River, as Maryland and Virginia watermen shot at each other over access to the Chesapeake's gold. But a decade ago, a new front in the oyster war began to emerge in California's Point Reyes region, about 30 miles north of San Francisco. The question at the heart of the conflict was whether a storied ranching family could continue to raise oysters in the murky waters of Drakes Estero, which the National Park Service had designated as a national seashore.

I began reading Summer Brennan's The Oyster War with the same attitude Brennan had when she began writing it. I assumed I'd come down on the side of the oyster farmer. I did, but she didn't.

As Brennan, who used to write for the weekly Port Reyes Light, tells the story, when the National Park Service acquired the land that would become the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1976, the area was filled with cattle farms. The ranchers welcomed the buyout: Land prices were skyrocketing, milk prices were plummeting, and many of them felt they would likely lose their land anyway if the government didn't step in and buy it from them. (The surrounding area is still dominated by cattle.)

Though there were other oyster farms in the general area, only one was located in the new national seashore, operated by the Johnson family under a lease from the Park Service. The Johnsons were originally wheat farmers who had fled the Dust Bowl, but by the early 2000s they were locked in a battle with the local government over responsibility for leaking sewage and beach debris from the oyster farming operation. After approaching a local ranching family for help on some construction work, Tom Johnson got the idea that maybe the Lunnys, who had been raising cattle in the area for four generations, would like to buy him out of his lease with the Park Service. The Lunnys promised to be excellent environmental stewards and invest in the cleanup. In 2005, the Johnsons transferred the lease to Kevin Lunny and his family.

The Park Service supported that plan. But they would not budge on the lease terms. The Johnsons' contract to farm oysters was set to expire in 2012, and the Park Service never intended to renew it. The Lunnys launched a full-bore effort to change the government's mind; they had powerful allies in celebrity chef Alice Waters, famous locavore Michael Pollan, and influential senator Dianne Feinstein. But the feds refused to budge. They did not want to have an oyster farm in a national seashore, no matter how many Bay Area luminaries stuck up for it. Last year, having exhausted their options for court appeals, the Lunnys shut down the farm.

Why the Park Service wanted to get rid of the aquaculture operation remains a bit of a mystery. Officially, the farm, which employed and housed about 30 workers, mostly from Mexico, didn't fit with plans for a wild and scenic area. The Park Service staff argued that the oyster harvest interfered with the lives and mating habits of seals, though the evidence for that was not conclusive. At any rate, a seashore surrounded by domesticated cattle is not exactly wild and undisturbed.

Brennan is a lyrical and lovely writer, and as she started her research she was firmly on Team Lunny. But after uncovering more information, her opinion changed. Brennan argues that oysters never grew in the wild in Drakes Estero, that any remnant population came from oysters imported to the area in the 1930s, and that therefore the environmental case for keeping the farm was weak. She places a lot of stress on the fact that the Lunnys knew the Park Service never planned to extend the lease, and she worries that granting an exception for the Lunny family to operate in a scenic, wild area could set a precedent for less benign exemptions. What if a power plant wanted to operate in a national park?

Unfortunately, Brennan's lovely writing is hampered by less-than-sharp reporting skills. Not only was the Light her first newspaper job, but she was the Light, with no editors or mentors to help shape her work. A few more years covering a beat might have been helpful for the difficult task of parsing the competing scientific claims. Two such claims stand out: that oyster farming harms the harbor seals, and that oyster waste harms the water.

For reasons that remain unclear, the Park Service did not commission much research on the interaction between harbor seals and oyster boats. Oyster farmers generally grow their crops three ways: on the bottom on shells, on top of the water in floats, or a few inches from the bottom in cages. Farmers typically take boats out to the leases to check on the crop and move them into mesh bags with larger holes as they grow. They also sometimes wash or tumble the oysters to give them a nice cup shape and remove mud, barnacles, and other natural growth. As Brennan reports, the limited study the Park Service conducted showed that oyster boats were not the primary cause of seals dying or shifting their mating habits. Many other disturbances occurred in the so-called natural area, among them kayaking tourists.

In one of the book's strongest sections, Brennan describes the comedy of errors that was the Park Service's attempt to document the farm/seal interaction with a hidden camera. The graduate student charged with working the camera routinely had trouble getting to the site, trained it on the wrong areas, or couldn't operate it at all. The result? The stunt raised the ire of townspeople while yielding almost no useful recordings. So there's no way to know for sure whether the oyster farm harmed the seals, as Brennan concedes. Yet she sides with the Park Service nonetheless.

Brennan's second assertion deals with oyster feces, sometimes called pseudofeces, and the pollution they add to the water, particularly in the sediment. One National Park Service researcher concluded that oyster feces are a problem, despite considerable evidence from multiple other researchers that they aren't. The National Park Service subsequently corrected the claim. Brennan should have stated clearly and more prominently that the initial conclusion was incorrect.

I also wish the book had said more about the Lunnys' operation. Brennan explains that the Johnsons left a mess that the Lunnys were committed to cleaning up. But most of her accounts seem to come from when she was a Light reporter. Brennan left the Light when it became clear her opinions diverged from the paper's pro-aquaculture owners. She doesn't explicitly say whether Kevin Lunny declined to speak to her once she decided to write the book, but that seems to be the case.

Had he agreed to grant her a more extensive interview and a few sanctioned visits to the farm, she would have a more complete story to tell. Most importantly, she might have been able to illuminate the situation on the ground. Was Lunny attempting to clean up a mess, as he asserted, or making a bigger one, as his opponents claimed? It's hard to tell from this account.

As for Brennan's main arguments against the farm, I'm not sure it matters whether the Lunny oysters are a native species or a 1930s import. The West Coast has a long history of cultivating non-native species. As long as the oysters aren't invasive and aren't bringing in parasites that devastate native populations or trouble the seals, it doesn't make that big a difference if they come from elsewhere. The Lunnys were growing them in controlled environments, just as oyster farms do in Oregon and Washington. That's a lot different from, say, Maryland's now-abandoned plan to use tax money to introduce a wild Asian oyster into Chesapeake Bay without confining cages that could halt or mitigate problems.

And what of her argument that allowing the Lunnys to stay would have set a precedent? Well, all things that come first set precedents. But the Park Service could have easily worked out an exemption specific to the Lunnys—or, more broadly, to enterprises that don't injure the local ecosystem.

Brennan also ends her story abruptly. She reports that the Lunnys filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior and former Sec. Ken Salazar for his decision not to extend the lease, but doesn't mention that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case or that it fizzled at the District Court level.

In the end, even Brennan concludes that the oyster farm and the natural estuary could have found a way to co-exist. Politics, not ecology, forced the Lunnys to close. But she still comes down on the government's side.

That's too bad. The Lunnys would have paid to clean up the area and make the farm a showplace for oyster cultivation, which helps filter the waters whether or not the population is native to the area. Because of Salazar's decision, taxpayers are stuck with the cleanup bill instead.

The Lunnys lost the oyster war, but so did Drakes Estero. The waters may be wilder now, but without the oysters, they won't be nearly as clean.

Correction: This review was based on advance galleys that mistakenly omitted the book's final chapter. Some events that we said were not included in the book, such as the outcome of the oyster company's petition to the Supreme Court, are covered in that chapter. The review also reported inaccurately that the book's author had "no editors or mentors to help shape her work" while she was employed by the Port Reyes Light. She did in fact have an editor.